ENJOYING MONTREAL WITHOUT ACTUALLY SPEAKING FRENCH
ENJOYING MONTREAL WITHOUT ACTUALLY SPEAKING FRENCH
THE OILMAN from Alberta was more than a little surprised when he got to Montreal and found that he could get through his two-week visit without once having to fall back on his high-school French. “Everyone here speaks English!” he exclaimed.
Like most generalizations, it wasn’t completely true, and what he really meant was that everyone he met could speak English. But the Albertan’s astonishment revealed just one of the basic misconceptions many Canadians have about their largest city. So what follows here, then, are a few words to allay any fears a would-be visitor to Montreal may have and help him set aside any prejudices.
First of all, it’s important to accept the fact that Montreal is a part of Canada so completely different from the rest of the nation that it is like a foreign country — which in a way it is. Acceptance of this idea results in a more receptive frame of mind: you won't keep demanding the reassuring symbols and atmosphere of what has always meant Canada to you.
French Montrealers are as a whole an affable, gregarious group. But they don’t share the friendly casualness that is found in English-speaking Canada. They have made an art out of politesse. The same word in English, politeness, usually infers cool reserve. Not so in French, in which it carries the connotation of charm, warmth, and composure. A westerner watching a group of French friends greeting each other in a restaurant may feel like a turkey buzzard that has stumbled upon a group of gay peacocks performing a pavane of courtliness. To the French there is nothing insincere about all this. On the contrary, they admire a person with gentillesse, grace.
They also greatly admire anyone who has style, who can keep his cool. Montreal photographer Louis Jacques claims, “This city has the most sophisticated girlwatchers in the world. They don’t swivel their heads or stare. There is just this little flicker of the eyeballs to one side as a good-looking girl passes.” This sophistication produces a worldly tolerance. When New York writer Tom Wolfe strolled around the downtown streets recently hardly anybody gave him a second glance. Yet Wolfe was dressed in an icecream-white suit with bell-bottom trousers and a jacket that had lapels going out to the shoulders. To complete the ensemble he had white-spat shoes and a violent red-and-yellow Big Lunch tie. The only person to ask him Who-on-earthdid-he-think-he-was-going-around-dressedlike-that. turned out to be a girl from Pine Falls, Manitoba. So the moral here is, come on slowly and politely, and as you get to know the French better you will become enchanted by their own special way of showing hospitality.
About speaking the language: There are really no handy phrases as such to help a visitor find his way around in French. It’s not really the phrases you can articulate, it’s how much you can understand. Before your ear becomes tuned, it takes months of listening daily to the French language. More important to the visitor, although 80 percent of Montrealers list French as their mother tongue, 60 percent can also speak English.
There is a two percent chance that the visitor may meet a Montrealer who just doesn't like English-speaking people, no matter how reasonably they appear to behave. So the handy phrases to understand in this situation are ones that will enable you to walk away with dignity. Most common is, “Maudit Anglais," which comes out with a “z” sound in place of the “d.” It means, “Goddamned English.’’ Another easily recognizable slang epithet is “Tombez mort!”—“Drop dead!”
It’s also important to know that the French find it horribly patronizing to be thanked with a “Merci beaucoup” after they have given you exhaustive information in impeccable English.
If you make friends with a French couple whose names are say. Lucille and Jean-Paul, don't start using the English diminutives, Lucy and Johnny, or you’ll freeze what might have been the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
One final point on the language. If you have been studying hard and are confident that you can start using your French on the street, it's a good idea to start with. ‘'Excusez.'.'” If the answer is. “Oui?” then go ahead with your French. The reason for this is that you’re going to encounter a lot of fellow visitors who might only look French, and you’ll be able to avoid the answer, ‘Tm sorry, I’ve lived here all my life but I've never learned to speak the language.”
A final word on eating out in French restaurants (see page 16). Without a doubt. Montreal is one of the finest restaurant cities in North America. By me. dining out in Paris was always an ordeal, mostly because I found Parisian waiters to be insufferable. Not so in Montreal. The menu will, of course, be in French, but don’t hesitate to discuss whatever you don’t understand. The French themselves always spend a great deal of time discussing the menu, and what goes into a particular dish. If you’re not sure of the wine, ask the waiter for a suggestion. In reputable restaurants, waiters and chefs take a professional interest in guiding diners —you are, after all. in the hands of experts. If a suggestion is offered, don’t be afraid to experiment. In one of Montreal’s finest restaurants I once watched an Englishman ask for a lemon to squeeze on his Filet Doré. The waiter gently suggested that the lemon would spoil the sauce. No, the Englishman, who spoke excellent French, wanted lemon. The chef came out from the kitchen and in great detail explained how he had made this sauce especially for the Doré. The Englishman was adamant. He was with his girlfriend, he had asked for a lemon, and that’s what he wanted. In silent rage, the chef returned to the kitchen, sliced a dozen lemons open, put them on a plate and served them himself with a “M'sieur?” — hissed between clenched teeth. ★
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.